Perfectionism And Puzzle Pieces

The goal is closer.   I am over 71,000 words with the latest work in progress.  The book needs to come in around 90,000, give or take a couple thousand words.  This is generally speaking.  We know there are rule breakers out there, but like this latest article in Writer’s Digest discusses, the rule of thumb for literary/commercial fiction is between 80,000 – 89,999, and even 90,000 – 99,999 is okay.  As an unpub’ed writer, rule breaking is off limits.

I still have a lot of stuff yet to happen, and that’s good.  No, that’s great actually.  Because if the book comes in at 110,000 or 120,000, that gives me plenty of leeway to edit/revise, i.e., kill all those little darlings.  It’s always hard to predict what the word count will be anyway.  When it gets to this point, it can get a little overwhelming.  All the messes I left dangling mid-air while I continued to shove and push my protagonist into her own little corner of hell on earth, need resolution.  She must get herself out of all her predicaments, realize why she ended up there to begin with, and realize whodunit.  Blech.

Here is where having perfectionist qualities are not good – especially during first drafts.  I have fought (and lost) the battle to stop editing and revising as I go along.  I’ve already killed so many darlings it’s possible there’s another fully completed novel in all of the stuff I’ve taken out.  I’m also spending a lot of time second-guessing where I’m headed, questioning the things I have planned to finish the book.  I’ve changed stuff up.  I’ve moved it around.  I’ve shoved other things to the back.  There was one part I wrote where something was taken and then discovered it had been taken all before page 65 – and then I wrote about it again – like I’d never mentioned it – on page 210.

You would think the positive review I got from my agent back in December would have given me the confidence to finish it with a bang.  That’s what I thought too – for about five seconds.  Then I just got anxious.  Anxious about keeping the next two hundred and fifty or so pages up to par with the first one hundred.   Anxious the plot was hokey.  Anxious he only liked what I had because he had no idea where I was headed with it.

I told someone the other day, my style of writing is like dumping a puzzle out on the floor.  (One of those monstrous ones that has about a thousand pieces.)  Some are face up, while the others are face down.  As we all know, finishing it means you must be able to see every aspect of the picture.  Yet, sometimes even after turning over all the pieces, it’s not uncommon to struggle to put it all together.  I want the ending to sizzle.  I don’t want to disappoint.  Mainly, I want it to be as perfect as it can be – at least in my mind.  I need to quit changing stuff until it’s done, so I’m not re-writing other parts to fix that.  If I could only stop tweaking the darn thing and just finish it.  Maybe this will work…  note to self, stop getting in the way! 

Are you guilty of this too?



I never did answer your question; “Are you guilty of this too?” Yes and no.
Short answer, hell of a surprise.

This is what works for me. I take a ride in the car and do this so people think I’m on a hands free phone and not looney. I am interviewed by some hotshot who wants to know every nuance of my book.
If you have to tell someone, out loud, what your book is about, the plot, the characters, the surprise, the cliff hanger, the hint in chapter five, that used to be in three, but wait, I had to hold off ’til seven…when you verbalize and talk it out to the hotshot, it often falls into place.
I like it here in my padded room.

You will finish the book Donna, you know you will. And i can’t wait to read it.


Brace yourself, this is a long comment because, well, I am verbose regarding the jigsaw.

Now you’re talking about something about which I am an expert – puzzles. Eight years ago I took a jigsaw puzzle to work, 1000 pieces. I thought it might be something nice to work on during breaks and lunches. It’s good to get your head out the workplace during the day and I figured a puzzle would do that as well as foster team effort. I had no idea how many people loved puzzles. We’d sit around, talk, fit a few pieces together and once the puzzle was done, I glued it and hung it on the employee lunch room wall. Whenever employees from other locations came in for meetings or whatever, all of them, even the ‘suits’, loved the puzzles.
Last year the company did an entire do-over of the whole facility. The puzzles had to go. The employees got to pick the ones they wanted and take them home. It was a sad day when the walls went blank. In seven years we completed and hung 185 jigsaw puzzles. All sizes, the largest was 1500 pieces and was so big we had to build it in two parts on two separate tables, the smallest, an 8” by 11” that had 1000 pieces in it; we did that one with tweezers. Most were 1000 standard 22” by 30” jigsaws.

My point being – yes, completing a novel is very much like putting together a puzzle.
Study the cover of the box, that’s the picture you want in your mind as you proceed. Dump the pieces, flip and sort by blocks of color. Sort out the edge pieces and put together the framework first. Within your completed framework, assemble the blocks of color leaving the broad areas, like an expanse of sky, for last. Then, within each section of common color insert the detail pieces. This takes some shifting until you are able to lay them out so they look sort-of like the picture on the cover of the box; then and only then do you proceed to fill in the connecting pieces.
Just remember, if you try to fill in those pesky little detail pieces as you go along, you get frustrated because they do not relate until almost the whole picture is there.
But then again, on occasion I’ve assembled skies first and edges last, so what the hell do I know?

Oh one more thing, when you get really frustrated and you are convinced that a piece is missing, check the floor beneath the table. Usually the missing piece is right under foot and has been there all along,


I’m this way too, but for me it’s generally a good thing. More of the story “manifests itself” to me as I go along, and what made sense on page 20 might no longer fit after page 120 is drafted. I go back and revise/enhance/sharpen/presage a lot as I’m doing the longer stuff.

This has proven problematic for my Father’s and Sons cycle since recent “manifestations” can affect some of the stories that are already published. Then what do I do?


    I’ve actually questioned whether my brain is wired for suspense. All those moving pieces/parts, keeping the two POV’s straight (how does anyone manage more?), who’s doing what, when did they do it, why did they do it. Headache.

    The F&S’s situation… Maybe it would depend on if you completely changed them from the original premise/plot point, etc. I wouldn’t think that would work, but a slight change/enhancement – why not?


I know what you say about length but I also think a story is finished when its finished, and you can always artificially extend or shrink it by putting in or taking an episode. My experience is that in the end, the story sort of writes itself and when it comes to a conclusion, there is little point in arguing with it.


    “there is little point in arguing with it…”

    I think this is why so many writers who’ve done the best they can to edit/revise, have to really sacrifice even more so when they are told it’s too long or short.

    The second book I wrote was originally 82,000, but after revising it was 75,000. My agent came back and said it felt too “light,” that it could use another 10,000. I had to do just what you said, and brought it up to about 86,000. Once that was done, I realized I could have kept right on writing – so I really question today if it is “done.” And with the first book (92,000) I got to a point where all I was doing was moving commas around – and that told me it was fully baked.


I am the same way, but the revising as you go works for me when I’m doing something like a research paper or essay. I’ve noticed with fiction or creative it doesn’t work for me and yet I’m in such a habit.

And I have to try soooo hard to not point out misspelled words, etc to my students when we’re writing rough drafts in class. They have a hard enough time just getting their thoughts on paper because they want it right the first time (although their reason is because they are lazy and don’t want to write it again).


    Oh my gosh, Jennine! I was laughing at that last sentence! Loved that. Yes, the shorter pieces aren’t such a bother, but you’re right – it seems with novels, you can really get yourself in trouble – or at least I have with this one. It’s very different from the first two…because of the suspense element, and if I change something, I have to be careful to follow up – which I think is why I do it right then – so I don’t forget!


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